Archive for the ‘Mysticism’ Category

To know the dark

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Wendell Berry

I don’t know whether this applies to all who hunger for God and take prayer seriously – I know it has applied to many, like Thérese of Lisieux, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton – that, after early mystical experiences, the lights go out and an all-enveloping darkness, or dense fog descends. Whether darkness or fog, the result is the same. Where before there were perspectives, illumination, above all awareness of a union that transcended bodily boundaries, now there is isolation, solitude, alone in the dark. This is hard to take. It is bewildering and disorientating. One is constantly searching for some chink, some glimmer in the darkness, for reassurance. And occasionally, very occasionally, there might be the briefest of glimmers, but never enough to lift the all-pervading gloom.

Discovering Wendell Berry’s poem above made me realise that the constant searching and yearning for light in the darkness is a failure to recognise reality as it presents itself to us. It is a failure to move on, to realise that the time of illuminating experiences was simply the beginning of the journey. It is a failure to realise that the illuminating experiences were not REALITY. An awareness, yes. An awareness of the horizon of this reality and in being aware of the horizon one is aware of a beyond but not of the beyond itself. That has been left behind now and one should not be constantly looking back, wishing that one was not where one is. The darkness is the new reality and it has much, much more to reveal.


Friday, April 18th, 2008

I came across a very interesting passage in René Voillaume’s history of the Little Brothers.

Les petits frères doivent avoir cet amour de charité immense qui fera d’eux des apôtres: mais dans cette voie il n’y a pas de milieu…il faut être un saint, héroïque peut-être, mais en tout cas, comme sœur Thérèse, un petit enfant brûlé d’un amour sans limite. Un missionnaire ou un prêtre actif médiocre peut servir à Dieu d’instrument pour gagner des âmes: un contemplatif médiocre est inutile. Il est comme le sel affadi dont parle l’Évangile. Son rôle est d’attirer des trésors des grâce sur les âmes; est le moyen c’est l’amour, la souffrance et la sainteté.*


‘A mediocre contemplative is useless’, whereas a mediocre priest can be an instrument through which God can work. This is a fascinating insight which goes right to the heart of what being a contemplative means. He goes on to say that the rôle of the contemplative is to attract grace to people. That’s not quite how I would explain it. The contemplative does not preach, teach, or administer the sacraments. His life is hidden, focused on God. It is not a public life. It does not depend for its effectiveness on work, or social interaction. And that is why it is generally misunderstood and by many thought of as selfish escapism. On the contrary, as I suggested the other day, for the contemplative any turning away from the focus on God in the existential now would be escapist.

René Voillaume talks about attracting the treasures of grace. I would put it as opening up channels, or facilitating links. When I think about the meaning of the contemplative life two ideas come to mind. One is the Buddhist idea of pratityasamutpada.** Everything, and all of us humans, are co-dependent. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it ‘interbeing’. We are inter-linked at the deepest of deep levels. This applies even in nature and is one of the things that fascinates James Lovelock and has led to the ‘gaia’ hypothesis. We are not usually aware of these subliminal influences on us. This is one of the ways in which the Spirit operates, I believe. And it is at this level that the contemplative works. This is why René Voillaume stresses the need for sanctity.

But all this has to be taken on faith. When one is in solitary prayer, when one is suffering and consciously uniting oneself with the suffering of countless others and with the redemptive suffering of Christ, there is no evidence that anything is being accomplished or achieved. Is what one is doing better than reading a book, or going for a walk? Is it simply a delusion, a way of coping with suffering, with powerlessness? Is it (it needs to be said) a certain laziness, an unwillingness to get up off your backside and do something constructive like being of service to somebody?  Much better to help people would seem to be the conclusive answer. And yet… there is the tradition going back to the desert fathers in the fourth century, a tradition that is also very strong in Buddhism and Hinduism, and exists widely elsewhere.  This is a tradition that, while it does not deny that being of service to others is the highest of ideals, says that there is something just as important, which is generally not recognised, or even suspected by many. I am not talking here about conventional religious faith, about the belief in God and life after death. This, usually, is belief in a two (or three) tier universe – this world and the supernatural realm. For many, maybe for most people, I don’t know, this is enough. It answers their questions and provides meaning. But the contemplative is someone who is aware that none of our cognitive models of reality come near to the truth. Paradoxically, the more he becomes conscious of the impossibility of there being anything other than the hard empirical reality of everyday experience, the more he becomes aware of profound mystery. It seems that this hard empirical reality, so pressing, so immediate, is merely a thin surface beneath, or within, which there are depths upon depths. God is not out, or up, or beyond there. We are not just egos acting and interacting, atomised individuals. God is within, within everything but especially within us. Paul pointed all this out in his letter to the Romans. The whole of creation is in the process of giving birth. When we consider the cosmos we marvel at its complexity, its beauty and how it has evolved to produce life and self-consciousness. We marvel at the eco-system of the world we live in, at its intricacy, at its exquisitely delicate balance and at how efficiently everything interacts from the macro to the micro level (pratityasamutpada). What we don’t see, and are not usually aware of is the Spirit within, the Spirit giving birth to God within. Eckhart has the lovely idea of Christ being born in the soul. All past, all present and all future come together in the innermost depths of the soul. There the particular and the universal coincide, the Absolute and the individual unite.

God makes the world and all things in this present now. Time gone a thousand years ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant. The soul who is in this present now, in her the Father bears his one-begotten Son and in that same birth the soul is born back into God. It is one birth; as fast as she is reborn into God the Father is begetting his only Son in her.

The contemplative is someone who lives this mystery and in living it, this is the other point I want to make, he, or she, becomes a sign of contradiction.

A rationalist cannot justify the contemplative life, cannot justify the oxymorons of the Sermon on the Mount, cannot justify the set of values, standards and attitudes which Jesus put forward. They run counter to the accepted norms of social behaviour. And that is precisely the point. People who live like that (too few) are a sign of contradiction. We live without really questioning the common sense laws, rules and procedures there to protect us from the Hobbesian vision of the default state of humanity – “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, bruti
sh, and short.” But we are not predators prevented only by social constraints from giving vent to our selfish desires. We emerge from God. We reflect Him, or not, by our manner of living.

* Voillaume, René; Charles de Foucauld et ses Premiers disciples: du désert Arabe au monde de cités, Bayard Éditions, Paris 1998 p. 177

**dependent origination’, ‘co-dependent arising’ ‘conditioned co-production’, according to which reality is seen as a boundless web of interrelations whose momentary nodes make up the ‘things’ of experience. It is pure relation without substance. It leaves covetous man with nothing to cling to, nothing to become attached to.

Interbeing is a relatively new term coined by Thây to describe the essential interconnectedness of the universe. It challenges us to look beyond the world of concepts and opposites. If we look deeply into the nature of our universe we can see all things as profoundly interdependent. In traditional Buddhism this was originally called dependent co-arising.]


Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008

There was an email from — this morning. He wonders what it is that I am writing about, whether it is human experience. All my thoughts centre on the fact that there is a transcendental dimension to human experience. Many, maybe the majority, I don’t know, live their lives without any apparent awareness of this dimension. As a consequence death, for all practical purposes, really is the end of life. Therefore their happiness is invested in their relationships and in material things. Which is fine for many. They live happy and fulfilled lives. They have constructed a human world where science and technology have improved the quality of life beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations. At a price. We have also, to use a phrase of Lionel Tiger’s ‘manufactured evil’,* produced a society which is toxic for millions of its members. It is damaging and destructive to the people who constitute it.  Firstly, money has become one of the most important criteria, often the deciding criterion, in decision making.  This, as Marx pointed out, means that all other criteria and values become secondary, including human ones.  This is dehumanising both for those who take advantage of the system and for those who are hurt by it. People are simply resources or commodities, expenses on the balance sheet, to be used or disposed of; their use governed by the need to make profits.  Human values, human aspirations, feelings, truth, beauty, honour, justice all these are of secondary importance if they cannot be quantified in monetary terms. 

Secondly, possessive individualism, the right of the individual, or the individual company, to do what she, he, or it likes within legal limits regardless of the social and personal consequences to others or the environment.  

Thirdly, the culture of hedonism.  This is partly the consequence of one and two.  What is money for if not to be spent for pleasure?  What is the point of individualism if you cannot do your own thing?  This cult of pleasure is given an added boost by the insecurity and fragmentation of modern society.  There is no longer such a thing as a safe job.  Redundancy can strike anyone from a vice-chairman to a machine operative and does so, frequently.  The fact that most people are heavily in debt to banks and building societies means that once these debts can no longer be serviced the individual can go from affluence to poverty overnight.  Those who have jobs find themselves under greater and greater tension as more and more is demanded of them for less and less.  Hence much frenetic pleasure seeking while it is possible. 

Fourth, unemployment and displacement.  One of the consequences of regarding people as resources and commodities to be used, bought, or dispensed with, is that the basic right to work is denied.  Both the Christian and Marxist perspectives agree that the right to work is fundamental to what it means to be human.  It is through work that we make ourselves what we are.  It is through work that we relate to the society of which we are part.  It is through work that we can transform our environment to make it a better place to live.  The type of work we do can diminish us or enhance us.  Though even when work is dehumanising and brutalising the worker is still part of the system, needed and necessary. To have no work, however, to be an asylum seeker, or a refugee, or to be so poor that each day is a precarious hand to mouth existence, is to be an outsider, to be marginalised.  It is to become, almost, a non-person.  It is to have nothing that others are willing to pay for.  It is to be nothing that others want. It is to be an encumbrance, an unwanted expense, a taker and user of resources who can give nothing in return. 

There is something very wrong, therefore, with our human world when it marginalises, dehumanises and subordinates to material factors so many of its inhabitants. And what is wrong is the fact that decision makers lack an awareness of the transcendental dimension which puts human life into a far wider context than that of the pragmatic materialist. They lack a vision of what it really means to be a human person. Lionel Tiger puts his finger on the problem – 

Why are people who are supposed to specialise in right and wrong essentially forbidden to devote their lives to gaining power in the real world?… On the other hand where ethical decisions must be taken non-stop ethically trained people are virtually non-existent. 

Like Tiger, many hold that ethics and religion are not necessarily connected and that it is possible to be a moral person without necessarily having a religious commitment. This is often true, nevertheless while Tiger, for various reasons, dispenses with this connection, religion is not so easily dismissed. Ultimately, all religions assert that there is a transcendental dimension to our human existence and that an awareness, and an understanding (in so far as this is possible) is essential if we are to define who and what we are. 

What is this transcendental dimension? Here we are faced with a paradox. On the one hand whatever transcends our experience cannot be known. It cannot be communicated to us through our senses. The transcendent cannot be seen, heard, touched or smelt.  On the other hand human history tells us that, as far back as we can go, people have been religious,** that is, in some way they have been aware of this dimension, attributing to it supreme importance. Secondly, how can this awareness of what is beyond our awareness be a (determining?) factor in what it means to be a person? There are no definitive answers to either of these questions, nor can there be, however, one can begin by exploring what is involved in them. 

For some time now I have been studying religious experience. The emphasis, unsurprisingly, has been on experience and experiences – what constitutes a religious experience? What is a mystical experience? Do mystical experiences and religious experiences differ; is one a sub-category of the other, or are they really distinct? Is there a fundamental mystical experience which is interpreted differently in various cultures and traditions? What constitutes a ‘genuine’ mystical experience? Is it distinguishable from a self, or dru
g induced experience? I could go on and on. There are a thousand questions and as many answers, some from those who have never had a mystical experience and some from genuine mystics, but there is no objective and independent criterion by which they can be judged. There can’t be. All experience is subjective but my experience of a banana, for example, is of an object which is available to the experience of others. Whereas a mystical experience  is totally subjective. It has no material or objective referent, nothing that can be shown to another, or demonstrated. Usually it cannot even be described accurately. Ineffability, as William James pointed out, is one of the characteristics of a mystical experience. 

I am coming more and more to the opinion that this focus on experiences is a blind alley. It provides rich pickings for academia, for sociologists and psychologists and there is nothing to stop a would-be guru, or teacher, or ‘master’ from setting up his own school and cultivating disciples. You only have to step into Watkins bookshop in London to see that the publishing industry is doing very well out of it all. But, for a person to make the drive for the definitive ‘experience’, for ecstasy, for union, for nirvana or whatever, is to go down the wrong road. It is to decide that you know who you are before you really know who you are, and where you are going before you know where the journey ends. It is to draw your own map and set out on a journey when there are no maps because the journey is within. The inner landscape is trackless and featureless. It is the landscape of the cloud of unknowing, of sunyata. 

[* Lionel Tiger, The Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution and the Industrial System, Marion Boyers, London 1991

** There is archaeological evidence for religious behaviour dating as far back as the Neanderthal period of human evolution. It has been conjectured that the recognition of mortality and the need to transcend it are a primary impulse toward mythology. Campbell, Joseph, Myths to Live By: how we re-create ancient legends in our daily lives to release human potential, Penguin/Arkana 1993]

The new mysticism

Tuesday, March 25th, 2008

Reading William Johnston’s Letters to Contemplatives.*  He talks about a new mysticism.  It is coming to birth, he says, as a result of a dialogue with Eastern religions.  It has five characteristics.

  1. It appeals to the laity and not just to monks and nuns, although the gurus and teachers still tend, in the main, to be celibate religious.  Contemplation is not just the preserve of the few.
  2. It speaks a different language.  It does not use the abstract terminology of the scholastic theologians.  It is holistic and person centred.  It is aware of the distinction between the ego and the self; it is filled with awe and wonder, not just of God, but also of the mystery of the self; it is aware that the person is multidimensional and of the complexity of consciousness in the process of development and transformation; it is aware of the flow of energy within and without.
  3. It emphasises the importance of posture and breathing.
  4. It stresses the importance of faith – a radical faith which sustains in the darkness and the nothingness.  (I am not sure that this is something new.)
  5. There is emphasis on enlightenment.  Mysticism has a goal – the experience of God.

To all this I would add something else.  The new mysticism is not just situated within the structures and rituals of institutions and churches.  Nor is it dependent on particular life-styles such as celibacy, community living, solitude, or daily routines.  The former are important in that they provide continuity and a context within which knowledge can be passed on.  The latter are important if a person wants to explore and develop his experience and achieve enlightenment.  But they are not necessary and there are many, many who live with a deep awareness of the interconnectedness of all that is, and especially, of all life; who are aware of their immersion in and emergence from the One who is at the heart of all that is; for whom the material world, the now world, is translucent – that through the thin membranes which circumscribe our existence shines the love and the joy of a Reality which cannot be expressed.  

This is the new mysticism.  It is a mysticism based on experience and not enculturation, or methodology.  The most interesting thing from the point of view of the Catholic Church is that it does not necessarily arise from the experience of church going, from the liturgy, or from the sacraments – though all of these are milieux where God is encountered by many believers and the result of mystical experience may be a turning to and an increased commitment to the Church for some.  But the important point is that the Church and its liturgy is not the primary source of their encounter with God.  God is experienced in living and this experience of God in the day to day rush, in the routine tasks and chores, in personal encounters and relationships, in the interludes and in the (short) moments of silence, solitude and awareness is often of a heart-stopping intensity.

Another thing about the new mysticism is that it is not terribly conscious of being a way, or a ladder, or a journey towards perfection, or enlightenment, or union.  ‘Professional’ mystics, if one may use that term, monks and nuns and lay people with spiritual advisers, whether Christian, Hindu or Buddhist, are the inheritors of their spiritual traditions and are constantly being reminded of the paucity of their experience in comparison with the giants of the past.  A path and its stages is mapped out for them together with constant warnings of dangers and false trails.

The modern mystic knows none of this, at least, not at first.  All he knows is his experience and, because he has nothing to compare it with, it is appreciated for what it is.  There is a freshness and an innocence and a humility which is not to be found in communities dedicated to spiritual athleticism. An exemplar of all this is Etty Hillesum.

Although by night

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

I came across the following quotations in the last few days. It is consoling to discover that others have gone through similar experiences.

Have we ever tried to love God where no wave of emotional enthusiasm bears us up and we can no longer confuse ourselves and our life-urge with God, where we seem to be dying of a love that looks like death and absolute negation and we appear to be calling out into nothingness and the utterly unrequited?Karl Rahner

[Quoted in Soelle, The Silent Cry, Fortress Press,  p. 133. No reference given.]

I feel an ever increasing sense of devastation, both in my intellect and in the centre of my heart, at my inability to think with truth at the same time about the affliction of men, and the perfection of God, and the link between the two.I have the inner certainty that this truth, if it is ever granted to me, will only be revealed when I myself am in affliction, and in one of the extreme forms in which it exists at present.Simone Weil

[Seventy Letters, OUP, 1965 p. 178; quoted in Anderson, David, Simone Weil, SCM Press 1971 p. 90]

Que bien sé yo la fuente que mana y corre

Aunque es de noche

Su origen no lo sé, pues no le tiene

Mas sé que todo origen de ella viene,

Aunque es de noche

St. John of the Cross


[How well I know the fountain’s rushing flow / Although by night. / I do not know its origin, no one does / But I know that all origin from it comes / Although by night.Poems of St. John of the Cross, trans. Roy Campbell, Collins Fount 1979 p. 44] 

I think I am only just beginning to understand what faith means. We tend to think, at least I do, that the extraordinary mystics, like John of the Cross and Simone Weil, went around with, as they call it in the East, the ‘Third Eye’ wide open, aware of the divine Presence permeating everything. Not so. We all walk in darkness illuminated now and again by glimmers of light and moments of inexplicable joy. Perhaps for them the glimmers were brighter and the joy lasted a bit longer but the prevailing mode is darkness. The worst thing, as Rahner points out, is that the darkness is not only not being able to see but also not being able to feel anything either. There is no heightened emotion, no prevailing ecstasy, no spirit-filled exuberance.  There is simply the dry, dull, often banal, often boring and tedious daily routine. And that is where faith comes in. 


Etty Hillesum

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

I have come across Etty Hillesum. She is one of the examples used by Oliver Davies in his Theology of Compassion. The fascinating thing about her is that she is a natural mystic. Her religious background is agnostic – a nominal Jew – until the Germans began their extermination process in Holland. She reminds me of one girl I taught, whose name I have now forgotten, who was also a natural mystic with no religious background at all. I am looking forward to reading Etty’s diaries. The other interesting thing is that her mysticism leads her, not to solitary contemplation, or a rejection of all things worldly, but to immerse herself in the terrible suffering of her fellow Jews. She wants to be the seeing, caring, compassionate heart of the concentration camp, articulating, praying and witnessing.

I am also reading Thomas Merton’s journals and find it very interesting to compare his experience with Etty’s. He never uses one word where ten will do and is very pious in a Catholic sense – big on the Sacred Heart and Our Lady. It is interesting to see how, as he gets older, his prayer life becomes simpler, darker and more barren. Not that I have anything against devotion. It just never appealed to me. It always seemed to me as though it got in the way, like a lot of gaudy tinsel and fancy wrapping paper when the important thing is to get at the present underneath. Except that the box is empty and there is no present underneath – nothing that can be expressed or talked about. Merton loves all the monastic ritual, especially the sung Office. And he has his devotions but it is an imposed and acquired spirituality, put on, like the habit, when he entered the monastery. This is the early Merton. Later, he sees through the superficial externals and sets out into the desert of his solitary hermitage. That is why I am so interested in Etty’s spirituality. She knows nothing of theology, or ritual, or devotion. It is a spirituality immersed in people and relationships, in powerlessness and suffering. There are no ecclesiastical externals, no theologically determined rules about what is and is not correct. It is a discovery of God within herself and within the helpless suffering of her people.

Experience and negativity

Thursday, February 7th, 2008

Thinking about a phrase by Mary Frohlich where she, quoting Denys Turner, talks about the –

faultiness of present-day assumptions which reduce the mystical to an“experience of negativity“ rather than recognizing (as did these great patristic and medieval theologians) that Christian life is founded on a “negativity of experience.”

It took a while for this to sink in and I think it is profoundly true and the consequences enormous. I think the current interest in consciousness, and its altered states, on the effect of drugs on conscious experience, and on Eastern mysticism, has focused attention on experience, and experiences. Likewise the influence of people like Otto. If one were to go merely by the phenomenology of experience it would be difficult, sometimes impossible, to distinguish ‘genuine’ mystical experiences from those induced by drugs. By ‘genuine’ I mean the experiences of genuinely holy people as compared to people like Huxley and Robert Forman, who would claim neither to be holy or that their experiences were supernatural.

I have given much thought to the experience of negativity, shunyata, the Void, emptiness etc. It is easy to rationalise it as that which is experienced when one sees over the horizon of the empirical world. The ‘beyond beyond’ is empty, not in the sense that it is contingent – the sense in which self and person are seen as empty in Buddhist thought – but in the sense that there is nothing that can be grasped, conceived, or thought. It is easy to go on from this position (for theists anyway) to assert that this emptiness is the plenum of God’s presence, the ‘ground’ of all that is, and that to have experienced it is, however negatively, to have experienced God. Certainly to experience the Void is deeply meaningful. It provides a perspective, perhaps for the first time, from which to see this empirical world no longer as an absolute given, but as ephemeral and contingent. 

The ‘negativity of experience’ is another matter. In prayer I would guess that, for most of the time, it is the normal experience – darkness. One simply holds oneself there in the darkness, experiencing neither the vertiginous emptiness of the Void, nor the loving presence of the Other. 

Transcendence and experience

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008

I am groping with a vague idea, trying to make it explicit. It has been germinating for some time at the back of my mind. It has to do with the negativity of experience when it comes to prayer. There is tacit knowledge – an intuition of the Transcendent, which does not, and cannot, become explicit. This is because explicit knowledge is categorical and conceptual. Lonergan spelled out the difference between explicit knowledge and experience:

“To say that dynamic state [of mystic awareness] is conscious is not to say it is known. What is conscious is indeed experiences. But human knowing is not just experiencing. Human knowledge includes experiencing but adds to it scrutiny, insight, conception, naming, reflection, checking judging… the gift of God’s love ordinarily is not objectified in knowledge, but remains within subjectivity as a dynamic vector, a mysterious undertow, a fateful call to dreaded holiness. Because that dynamic state is conscious without being known, it is an experience of mystery.” (Lonergan, Bernard, Method in Theology, Herder & Herder, New York 1972  p. 106

Tacit knowledge is a conscious experience but there is nothing explicitly known. What is actually going on in religious experience?


Natural mystical experience – oneness leading to the disappearance of the subject/object dichotomy. The experience of the senses does not change, though there is a change in the meaning attributed to what is perceived. What changes is the sense of relationship. What is seen is external to the ‘I’, but not alien to it. On the contrary ‘I’ extends out into ‘all’. Nothing is alien, all is subjective. This is not solipsism. There is a paradox here – a subjectivity shared with the other.

Numinous mystical experience – the relational awareness of the OTHER – mysterium tremendum – who exists over and against the ‘I’. Sometimes this experience appears to be rooted in a specific empirical context, sometimes not. In any case what is important is not what is perceived but what is felt and the meaning attached to these feelings.

Presence – the experience of a transcendent presence, the OTHER. There may be numinous characteristics but here is no self/other dichotomy. The experience of being loved is from within the subjective perspective of the OTHER. There is self and there is the other but instead of being opposed they have merged, each retaining its identity. Each knows the other from within the other’s perspective. ‘I know as I am known.’

The two key elements in these three types of experience are meaning and relationality. Whatever the type of experience, it is perceived as profoundly significant and out of the ordinary.  This perception is not the result of empirical information, nor the result of a conceptual process. It is simply there. Similarly with relationality.


  We tend to think of experience as mediated by the senses but this is not always the case. For example, walking into a meeting, or approaching a group engaged in discussion, we pick up the emotional tenor immediately. We can be instantly aware of a charged atmosphere, of distress, of anger, etc. This is partly by means of a visual perception of the body language of the participants, but only partly. What is grasped is far too complex to be conveyed visually. If this were not the case we would be moved far more by the attitudes and actions we see on film or TV than in fact we are. It is through our relationship with others that emotions and feelings are communicated. There is no relationship with actors on a screen. (I suspect that one of the reasons why the theatre is more ‘dramatic’ is due to the physical proximity of the actors.) The baffling thing about religious experience is that it is possible to be aware of relationship without there being any visual or sensible referent.

The problematic nature of the self

Friday, January 25th, 2008


Reading McIntosh’s Mystical Theology* – it covers precisely the ground I have been thinking about lately. On the problematic nature of the self there is no doubt that Kerr** is correct. We are constituted by our human interactions – but what else goes into the mix? Is it entirely a case of co-dependent origination? Surely this is the efficient cause. What are the material and final causes? The final cause is where transcendence fits in. The origin of self lies in human interrelationships. Where those relationships are positive, co-operative and loving they are productive. Where they are negative, exploitative and selfish they are destructive. The primary dynamic is not physical, or biological but love, or some similar élan vital towards co-operation and creation. But the question still remains. Individual selves emerge from the matrix oriented through self-transcendence towards Ultimate Reality – we do not know the what and the why of this process. We do not know the relationship between the self and ultimate Reality, or indeed whether the term relationship can properly be applied. Indeed, so fundamental is co-dependent origination and the creative role of human interaction that it may be the case that this preoccupation with the individual self is an aberration. What is important is God. We need to get away from the preoccupation with inner states which keeps us locked in the prison of the existential self. But this is difficult because they are what we experience. God, by definition, cannot be part of our experience. Our experience determines the way of our living, usually. We are reactive because we do not understand what we are, or where we are going, or rather, we understand ourselves only in terms of the history of our personal experience. The transcendence of this empirical self is at worst a theory, at best a belief based on a few transitory glimpses. In the end reasoning fails and we are left before the MYSTERY – a luminous darkness, tremendum et fascinans, as Otto puts it.

[* McIntosh Mark A.; Mystical Theology, Blackwell, Oxford 1998]

[**“What constitutes us as human beings is the regular and patterned reactions that we have to one another.” Fergus Kerr;  Theology after Wittgenstein, Blackwell, Oxford 1986 quoted in McIntosh p. 21]


Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

I think one of the problems with meditation is this problem of ‘nothing’. One hovers on the verge. There is no progression of thoughts, or feelings. Awareness of breathing and counting of breaths becomes a featureless desert – no sky, no horizon, nothing but a timeless expanse stretching before and behind. I feel that somewhere there must be a boundary, a wall with a door leading through to… what? According to Nishitani the relative nothingness of the desert, nihility, is grounded in the absolute nothingness of sunyata. According the Christian mystics, the desert, or the dark night, leads to union. The two views of the outcome seem very different but since they are both talking about an experience of transcendence, by definition ineffable, it is possible they are not.